How Saul Niguez justified Thomas Tuchel’s belief with timely performance for Chelsea

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It has been easy to forget, as he has staggered and stumbled his way through the first few months of his Chelsea loan spell, that Saul Niguez was once regarded as one of the most thrilling prospects in the world of football.

If that sounds a little excessive, then consider this: Saul was only 22 years old when Atletico Madrid handed him one of the longest-running contracts in the history of the sport. He penned a nine-year deal in July 2017, keeping him at Atletico until he reaches his early thirties.

At the time, Atletico sporting director Jose Luis Perez Caminero said “there are no limits” to the potential of Saul, who won the Golden Boot at that summer’s European Under-21 Championship. The previous season he had played 53 games for his club, with Diego Simeone, his manager, saying that the midfielder had “the world before him”.

It can be hard to regain lost momentum in a game that moves so fast, though, and for much of this campaign it has been the world sniggering at Saul rather than the Spaniard taking it over. After falling out of favour under Simeone last season, the loan to Chelsea provided Saul — now 27 — with a chance to reignite his career and prove he still has that supreme ability of old. It was an opportunity that, until Wednesday night, he had resoundingly failed to take.

Saul’s struggles in London have been so pronounced that he has been widely derided as one of the worst signings of the season. His reputation has not helped him in this regard, with fans and pundits all expecting a high-class, technically gifted and physically powerful midfielder to provide Chelsea with another edge in the title race. Instead they have seen a seemingly lightweight, anxious footballer who could only last 45 minutes against the intensity of Aston Villa’s pressing.

What a relief it must have been, then, for Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea’s recruitment department and Saul himself when he produced a genuinely impressive, mature and dominant showing in midfield against Tottenham Hotspur in Wednesday’s Carabao Cup semi-final. There were sharp passes, clever runs and crunching tackles, including one superb challenge on Son Heung-min shortly after half-time. No player made more tackles or interceptions at Stamford Bridge.

Saul was one of the standout performers of the night, departing after 73 minutes to hearty applause from the home supporters and an enthusiastic response from Tuchel. It felt like a potentially significant moment when Saul, upon leaving the pitch, was thumped repeatedly and excitedly on the back by his head coach. 

Speaking afterwards, Tuchel described Saul as “outstanding” and spoke of a noticeable shift in the midfielder’s attitude in recent weeks. He had played well as a substitute against Wolves last month, and showed moments of promise in his previous outing, against Brentford.

“He is more happy, more free in training,” said Tuchel. “I see it every day. He played better when he came on against Wolves. He is stepping up and stepping up. I was so happy when I saw him on the sideline when we scored the equaliser against Liverpool, like he was totally committed. It was very impressive to see him like this. 

“So this is an important moment for him but I have the feeling that he has digested his experiences in the beginning, when maybe he did not expect it like this. He is not the first player to struggle from the switch and what he does is good because he is open, fully focused and totally committed to the team. I am very happy that he had a performance like today. It was a huge step.”

The reference to the game against Liverpool will resonate with the more eagle-eyed Chelsea supporters, many of whom would have noticed that Saul, a substitute, was joyously bundled to the floor by Antonio Rudiger as the players celebrated Christian Pulisic’s goal on Sunday. 

Saul’s defenders this season — if he has had any — would no doubt have argued that he has not been given enough opportunities to settle in English football. There is merit to this, to an extent: Wednesday’s game against Tottenham was only his seventh start of the campaign. 

But this is Chelsea in 2022, where every match must be won if trophies are to be secured and Manchester City are to be kept within reach. Tuchel cannot simply give Saul a few games to find his feet — the onus has been on Saul to get up to speed, not on Chelsea to hold his hand as he adapts. 

The other point to note is that Saul might not have even played against Tottenham if N’Golo Kante had not tested positive for Covid. Sometimes a player just needs a moment of luck like this or, more appropriately, a moment of misfortune for a team-mate. In truth, few players have looked more desperate for such a break than Saul this season. But if this performance marks the true start of his much-hyped loan move, then Chelsea might have finally found the player they were looking for.

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